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Flyers' Briere gives lessons in leadership

Danny Briere has played in more Stanley Cup playoff games than any other NHL player since the lockout. He has been this way before. He has been down and out, in a series and a game. He understands the ebbs and flows of playoff hockey.

The Flyers' center knows the one compelling truth this time of year: You can't bear to see it end. So before the third period Sunday, with Philly down, 4-3, and 20 minutes from elimination, Briere stood up in the dressing room and told his teammates so.

"I'm not ready for it to end," Briere hollered. "It's not time!"

Evidently, Briere's teammates were aroused by his talk. Peter Laviolette, the Flyers' dour coach, said he was fired up, too. Laviolette said it's no coincidence that Briere has been in four conference finals the last five years. His words carry weight, along with his play.

Briere had been emotionally charged up, and more than a little angry, since early in the game. "Honestly, one of their young guys said something to me that was personal and crossed the line," the former Sabre said. "It got me fired up a little bit more than it usually does. That was probably a big part of it."

A Flyers source said Patrick Kaleta made comments to Briere and teammate Scott Hartnell about their divorces early in the Flyers' 5-4 overtime victory, which evened the Eastern Conference quarterfinal series at three games apiece.

Hockey players aren't the most complicated people. The smallest things can motivate a team. Earlier in the series, Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said his team had been motivated when Philly's Mike Richards said Ruff's guys were getting away with murder.

This is all part of playoff hockey, the mind games that go back and forth. Ruff was at it again after Sunday's loss, suggesting that Richards should be suspended for cheap-shotting Tim Connolly into the boards from behind late in the second period.

Maybe the personal digs by Kaleta were no big deal. But Briere scored Philly's first goal after the Sabres surged to an early 2-0 lead. He scored again to tie the game in the second. And it was Hartnell who tied the game, 4-4, after Briere's speech.

That's what leaders do. They respond to the biggest challenges. Briere has been a huge factor in this series, one of the main reasons the Flyers are still alive. Now a Sabres team that met every challenge down the stretch is faced with a bigger one: Bouncing back after blowing a chance to close out a series at home.

The Sabres have been a remarkably resilient bunch since Christmas, especially since Terry Pegula became owner. But this is uncharted territory for many of them. They're up against a foe with equal character and toughness.

It's the Sabres who are reeling now. They've lost two of their top players, Jason Pominville and Connolly, to injury. They've blown big leads in two consecutive games. They played with fire twice and finally got burned.

"You know what's so impressive?" Laviolette said. "To do it again. It's draining. Coming back from two goals or three goals in the NHL is not an easy thing to do. It's a difficult thing to do. Most of the time you cave. When you have to do it back-to-back, it becomes extraordinary. I can't tell you how impressed I am with the resiliency."

The Sabres know how to bounce back. They've won twice in Philadelphia. They're capable of doing it again. But they were a dispirited bunch after Game Six, knowing they had squandered a golden opportunity. You wonder if a young, wounded team can rise above difficult circumstances one more time.

"It's tough," said Drew Stafford. "You run out of words to describe it. It just happens and you've got to rebound. You go back to our regular season. We had some tough games and were able to rebound. It put us in the spot we are right now."

The Flyers have played rotating goalies for six games and somehow survived. Two games in a row, the Sabres scored three goals on their first seven shots and chased the opposing goalie. Laviolette started the wrong goalie (Michael Leighton) Sunday. Brian Boucher bailed him out, with help from the Sabres.

This series has been a coming-out for Buffalo's little guys and young guys. Tyler Ennis and Nathan Gerbe have been terrific. Marc-Andre Gragnani has seven points. Tyler Myers had three assists Sunday. What the Sabres aren't getting is production from some of their highly regarded forwards.

Brad Boyes, a promising symbol of the new ownership when the Sabres acquired him at the trade deadline, has zero points in the series. Boyes doesn't look like such a wise investment next year at $4 million. Stafford, who will be looking for a salary in the $5 million range as a restricted free agent, has one goal.

Stafford had a lot of chances in 25:34 of ice time. He didn't convert any. If he expects to be compensated like a leader and a star, he needs to produce in the biggest moments. Like the little guy on the Flyers, Briere.

"We know that our best players are going to have to be our best players," Ruff said. "When you're short-handed, it's even more important. Thomas [Vanek] got us a couple tonight. We're going to need Brad [Boyes] to find the scoresheet somehow for us. But I'll tell you, this team's got a lot of battle, incredible battle. And this team is going to battle to the bitter end."

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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